Monday, February 22, 2010


Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.
-Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

By the end of next month, I’ll be out in the woods slithering around on my belly to take pictures of early spring wildflowers.

I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again. Throughout this cold winter, though, I’ve seen them in my mind’s eye. Just beneath the surface of the frozen ground, they’ve been there all along. Knowing that, even on the bleakest days, I’ve looked out on hills covered with the bright colors of spring.

Last year, I began to get serious about learning the wildflowers. I regret waiting so long. It could be a lifelong quest, no matter how long your life, and I’ve learned just enough to recognize how little I know. It’s one thing to identify individual specimens in bloom, but quite another to understand them in a fuller context.

Over the winter, I’ve considered how to approach those botanical explorations this year - by finding a different frame through which to view the world. I got some help with this by attending a native plant symposium over the weekend, hosted by the North Carolina Native Plant Society, Asheville Chapter. By the end of the day, I had some ideas for new perspectives on the upcoming woodland rambles. More on that later this week.

For now, back to the symposium…

Tom Baugh, a biologist and former poetry editor of Rapid River magazine, began the day with a discussion of life on earth and our human connection to other life. Baugh shared the quote from E. O. Wilson that I used at the beginning of this post.

E. O. Wilson, a Harvard University entomologist, coined the term "biophilia" referring to our innate affinity with nature. Wilson’s hypothesis is that humans evolved as creatures deeply enmeshed with the intricacies of nature, and that we still have this affinity with nature ingrained in our genotype.

His book, Biophilia, The Human Bond with Other Species, includes essays on his own journey of understanding:

I have argued in this book that we are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.

Among those inspired by Wilson’s eloquent argument is social ecologist Stephen Kellert who has applied biophilia to the design of buildings and communities, as described in the book Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life:

This book offers a paradigm shift in how we design and build our buildings and our communities, one that recognizes that the positive experience of natural systems and processes in our buildings and constructed landscapes is critical to human health, performance, and well-being. Biophilic design is about humanity's place in nature and the natural world's place in human society, where mutuality, respect, and enriching relationships can and should exist at all levels and should emerge as the norm rather than the exception.

Wilson and Kellert co-edited The Biophilia Hypothesis, a collection of invited papers supporting & refuting the biophilia hypothesis

Here are a few thoughts from E. O. Wilson:

The great philosophical divide in moral reasoning about the remainder of life is whether or not other species have an innate right to exist.

Biodiversity is the most information-rich part of the known universe. More organisation and complexity exists in a handful of soil than on the surfaces of all the other planets combined.

Biodiversity of a country is part of its national inheritance - the product of the deep history of the territory extending long back before the coming of man.

Humanity needs a vision of an expanding and unending future. This spiritual craving cannot be satisfied by the colonisation of space. The other planets are inhospitable and immensely expensive to reach. The nearest stars are so far away that voyagers would need thousands of years just to report back. The true frontier for humanity is life on earth, its exploration and the transport of knowledge about it into science, art and practical affairs. Again, the qualities of life that validate the proposition are: 90% or more of species of plants, animals and micro organisms, lack even so much as a scientific name; each of the species is immensely old by human standards and has been wonderfully moulded to its environment. Life around us exceeds in complexity and beauty anything else humanity is ever likely to encounter.

The manifold ways by which human beings are tied to the remainder of life are very poorly understood, crying for new scientific enquiry and a boldness of aesthetic interpretation.

Wildflower photos from Spring 2009 include (from top):
Geranium maculatum
Trillium erectum
Sanguinaria canadensis
Erythronium americanum

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